While I ponder the warp and woof of the dialogical origins of the American Revolution and what that might mean for those of us who daily attempt to straddle the 18th and 21st centuries (an unsteady endeavor at times), I thought I’d share these words to ponder from a 29-year-old Charles James Fox.
Fox hardly needs an introduction to anyone with even a passing familiarity with late 18th-century British politics. Fox’s connection with Williamsburg was a bit tenuous, having attended Eton at the same time as some of its luminaries. Snippets from surviving correspondence suggest that Ralph Wormeley, a member of Virginia’s Council and a loyalist during the Revolution (both of his younger brothers served in the British army and he was placed under arrest in 1776 and 1781), appears to have been on friendly terms with him, although it must be said that Wormeley appears nowhere that I’ve seen in Fox’s voluminous correspondence. Fox’s connection to the American cause during “the Troubles,” on the other hand, was direct and explicit. His argument during the 1774 debate over the Quebec Act that “My idea is that America is not to be governed by force, but by affection and interest,” is as much a reflection of that as is the following passage.
Fox’s statement is interesting to me for a number of reasons, not least of which is Fox’s continued use of the language of sensibility–which centers on passion, affection, and emotion–at the core of Georgian political culture (and its departure from the political language of the utterly sensible Augustan world it supplanted, at least temporarily). “Enthusiasm” was once a word to be decried as the characteristic of one who has, more or less, lost his or her mind. One prominent historian of my acquaintance has referred to enthusiasm as “the anti-self of the Enlightenment.” Fox’s language is also interesting for his employment of “interest,” that oft-employed and even more often misunderstood 18th-century word, the shifting meaning of which encapsulated changing relationships among Britons on both sides of the Atlantic in the period.
Fox’s speech is overwrought and overstated and could serve as the battle cry for all those adherents to revolutionary sensibility for whom “moderation” was something to abhor. Just imagine what Edmund Burke–not far removed from his days as the doyenne of the sublime and not yet shaken to his core by the violence of the French Revolution–might have thought as he sat and listened to it.
“The war of the Americans is a war of passion; it is of such a nature as to be supported by the most powerful virtues, love of liberty and of country and at the same time by those passions in the human heart which give courage, strength, and perseverance to man; …every thing combines to animate them to this war, and such a war is without end; for whatever obstinacy enthusiasm ever inspired man with, you will now have to contend with in America: No matter what gives birth to that enthusiasm, whether the name of religion or of liberty, the effects are the same; it inspires a spirit that is unconquerable and solicitous to undergo difficulties and dangers, and as long as there is a man in America so long you have him against you in the field. The war of France. . . is a war of interest; it was interest that first induced her to engage in it, and it is by that same interest that she will measure its continuance.”